Magic Mike is a movie about strippers. It is not, however, a movie about stripping. That’s an important distinction to make, as a movie about stripping, as proven by all movies about stripping, would get old fast. Gyrating to the right or to the left, dancing with a skinny girl or an old woman, dressed in trenchcoats or loincloths, the stripper still strips, his function is still to take off clothes, his biggest conflict is with a caught zipper, a button that won’t unsnap from his tearaway pants. Make no mistake, Magic Mike is quite knowledgeable in this field, but Steven Soderbergh‘s film—based on its star’s experiences on the stage—knowingly subverts its audience’s expectations, presenting a melodrama where the stripping is a glitzy side dish, something that threatens to steal both the audience’s attention and the protagonist’s autonomy.
Magic Mike is unique among movies about strippers in that its melodrama never overwhelms the narrative. Think of movies like Flashdance and Showgirls, how they struggled to deal with humans, let alone human interaction. It’s pretty calculated, then, that the first place we see Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) is not on stage, but working a construction job. He’s a stripper, yes, but that’s just one of several jobs he’s doing, one lucrative means of self-employment while he works his way towards his goal of owning a custom furniture business. In the meantime, he’s happy to make money and have fun, living an uncomplicated life as one of the “cock-rocking kings of Tampa.”
On the job, he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a college drop-out who isn’t exactly built for roofing houses. He tags along with Mike, who agrees to find him a job at the club where he dances. When one of the dancers overdoses and is unable to perform, Adam is pushed on stage to a crowd of screaming women. His coy act gets over big with the crowd, which gets him hired by its owner, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). The strippers at Xquisite are a kind of fraternity. Beyond Mike and Adam, we never learn any of their real names, but there’s no need. Guys like Tarzan (Kevin Nash) and Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) explain themselves. Adam is quickly suckered into the hedonistic life offered by Dallas and his crew, wooed by the possibilities of sex, drugs, and the prospect of Dallas opening a new club in Miami. Mike, on the other hand, has an interest in Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn), who represents a way out.
That last sentence may be a little unfair. Brooke and Adam are not the angel and devil on Mike’s shoulder, playing tug-of-war for his soul. Magic Mike is morally ambiguous, its aim is not to see anybody redeemed. It looks upon the facts of Mike and Adam’s life with a refreshing bluntness. Adam is in over his head, reckless. Mike can see that there’s money in going with Dallas to Miami, but he doesn’t want to be a career stripper. He’s got Dallas and Tarzan and Big Dick to look to for all the reasons why that life, leisurely though it may be, is not the one for him. But he’s promised Brooke—who accepts both Mike and what he’s dragged her brother into with only a mild sense of unease—to look after her brother, and that’s what ultimately keeps him in the game.
Though the abundance of oiled, muscular flesh at the core of Magic Mike little indicates it, this is a film primarily concerned with growing up. Adam’s a 19-year-old college dropout, the avatar of Channing Tatum’s adolescent slackerhood, and the guy who’s promised to take him under the shoulder, though older and more goal orientated, is hardly any better. There’s probably a reason why the bank turns him down for the loan he needs to start his business, and another reason why most of his money is kept in a safe in his beachfront property. Mike has lived large as Dallas’ featured dancer, has partied hard, has had an open and mostly sexual relationship with a grad student (Olivia Munn) that usually involves whatever third party they can scare up at Xquisite. Were it not for Brooke, were it not for Mike’s awareness of her outsider’s view of his profession, he might never aspire to be anything greater than Dallas.
Not that Soderbergh paints the life he or any of the other older strippers too negatively. Dallas has a nice house. A boat. He hosts getaways on a sandbar on the weekends. Despite being the emcee and dressing the part, he doesn’t strip to earn his money unless he damn-well pleases. It’s good to be the cock-rocking king of Tampa, and there’s not a person who knows Dallas who’d dispute it. As played by McConaughey, Dallas is a drawling, bongo-playing, devilish snake-oil salesman, someone who sells over-the-top macho fantasies to the women coming through the door and the men he pays to entertain them. He’s a shrewd businessman and a tad sinister in his later dealings with Mike, who comes to ask for a bigger cut of the gate. However determined Mike is—and there’s a blue-collar sensibility to Tatum’s performance here that suggests there’s something more to him than the blank slates he usually plays—he little realizes that he’s delivered unto Dallas the best insurance policy on can have against a stripper’s rising star: A replacement, in the person of Adam.
When it comes time for Magic Mike to make this point, it is none too subtle, having employed its fair share of downward spiral cliches in an otherwise understated narrative. But this film is one of the year’s most oddly compelling. It feels both glamorous and grounded, of our time and economy but not quite tethered to either. Plenty of attention has been paid to its choreography, but the performances of Tatum, McConaughey, and Pettyfer are where Magic Mike‘s pyrotechnics lie. As directed and shot by Soderbergh, the seamy underbelly of the industry he studies constantly threatens to rupture, swallowing his protagonists whole. Made for around seven million dollars, it has both the urgency and charm of a low-budget movie. Rather than exploit all that flesh for a cheap thrill, he builds something rewarding. When it comes to subverting the expectations of genre, there may be no better director in America.
Magic Mike. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. With Channing Tatum (Magic Mike), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas), Alex Pettyfer (Adam), Cody Horn (Brooke), Olivia Munn (Joanna), Joe Manganiello (Big Dick Richie), and Kevin Nash (Tarzan). Released June 29, 2012, by Warner Bros.